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Esko volleyball is rarin' to go

ESKO - You'd think after graduating half a dozen players from last year's state tournament squad that the Esko volleyball team would be in a state of panicked rebuilding.

Stephanie Bandelin
Esko senior Stephanie Bandelin hits during Esko's volleyball practice Tuesday. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

ESKO - You'd think after graduating half a dozen players from last year's state tournament squad that the Esko volleyball team would be in a state of panicked rebuilding.

Nope. It's the exact opposite.

Although Esko said farewell to six seniors from a year ago, they welcomed six more as practice began last week at Esko High School, along with a host of returning talent to the hardwood.

Currently, they're cool, calm and collected.

"We're very strong," said fifth-year coach Desiree DeLeon Tuesday morning during practice. "We have a bunch of athletes."

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Heading that class of returnees is senior outside hitter Stephanie Bandelin. The 6-footer led the Eskomos in kills last year, while she was a constant presence at the net blocking and altering attacks.

Along with Bandelin comes experienced senior middle hitter Megan Bergstedt, as well as hard-swinging junior outside hitter Amanda Belden. Meanwhile, senior Delany Pearson and junior Kallyn Knutson - both

defensive

specialists - will be the spine in the back row.

Hence, their calm approach to things in August.

"What I'm seeing so far is that we're very versatile," said DeLeon. "That's kind of going to be our thing this year. It'll be our focus."

Even though the Eskomos graduated a plethora of hitters, the key departure was the graduation of former setter and 2010 Duluth News Tribune Player of the Year, Keely Deadrick.

Esko has a replacement already set. Her name is Stephanie Miller.

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Although the swift-footed senior didn't get much varsity time a year ago, DeLeon likes what she sees in her 5-foot-7 general, who put in a lot of time in the off season, playing Junior Olympic volleyball.

"She played JV last year and didn't get a lot of time on the varsity," DeLeon said of Miller, who recently pulled her groin. "But she has been playing on Minnesota North here for three years and is a very good setter."

Last year, the Eskomos straight up romped through their competition, posting a 28-3 record, winning 74 of their 86 sets and came away with both the Polar League and Section 7AA titles.

And their trip to state was a memorable one.

"It was, like, super sweet going down there," said Bergstedt. "We didn't do super well there, so I'm kind of hoping we can go back and do better."

Esko's goal this fall is no secret. They want to repeat last year's successes.

"We talk about it a lot actually," said Belden. "I think we can do it."

"They think they can make it there again," DeLeon added. "And I do, too. These girls have good fundamentals and can do a lot of things."

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Traditionally, the Eskomos have out-slugged their opponents with a staunch hitting attack. With Bandelin, Belden and Bergstedt up front the attack looks good, but DeLeon also likes the way the back row has been shaping up so far.

"We do hit the ball well, but we're solid on our serve-receive and our passing," she said. "It starts with a pass and our passing is very good."

Bandelin agreed.

"I think we have a lot of talent," she said. "We're getting back into it. There's been a lot of conditioning and a lot of soreness, but it's whipping us back into shape."

As for the pressure of getting back to state, there's none present.

"I don't think we really feel any pressure," Bandelin continued. "We're super athletic and determined to get back to state. We're all working really hard. I think that we can make it back."

"That's their goal," DeLeon said. "They know it. We know it. That's our goal. And I don't think they feel pressure."

Nor does DeLeon. According to her, the girls make her job easy.

"They do," she said. "We have athletes at all levels coming up and it just makes me smile. Our C-team is solid and we have our highest numbers ever for our seventh- and eighth-grade teams, too."

Esko will open up its season Tuesday, Aug. 30, at home against section rival Hermantown.

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